Why Law School?

As jobs for lawyers disappear in the mist, applications for law school have risen 7%, according to the National Law Journal.  One explanation is that law school applicants are going underground.

“It’s absolutely consistent with every recession we’ve seen, with more people looking to graduate programs and into law school,” said Jim Leipold, the executive director of NALP, formerly the National Association for Law Placement. “Historically, it’s not been a bad strategy. I do think, for the immediate future, there are going to be fewer entry-level jobs at law firms.”

The other is that hope springs eternal.  Though the Biglaw job market has tanked, applicants think they will be the one to grasp the golden ring. 

Over at Above the Law, debate has broken out. Elie Mystal has taken the position that law school is a bad investment, apparently siding with the Law is for Losers contingent of the Slackoisie.  This position is characterized by people who cared deeply about being lawyers provided they made big money, easy work and nothing to interfere with happy hour.  For those who view law school as a financial investment, it’s certainly not a great bet.

David Lat, on the other hand, takes the opposing view and offers five arguments:

1. If a law degree is like a lottery ticket, remember: some people still win.
2. There are many great career options in law outside of large law firms.
3. What else are you going to do with yourself?
4. Not everyone graduates with debt (or with as much debt as some people think).
5. You get to put “Esq.” after your name.

While presented in his typical humorous fashion, Lat’s fifth argument, which he acknowledges is literally lame, is figuratively important.

The law is a learned and a noble profession, and some people truly are meant to be lawyers. In order to become a lawyer, you (generally) need to go to law school. So law school isn’t all bad — or is at least a necessary evil — and fair coverage of the world of legal education should reflect this.

Some people truly want to be lawyers.  They want to wake up in the morning and look forward to a day of practicing law.  Not just the young and naive, all filled with the transitory zeal that lasts until the mortgage payment is due, but those who realize that being a lawyer is hard work.  Tell me how you feel about it after five, ten or twenty years of banging your head against a wall, and realizing that the wall usually wins the battle.

The problem can be cut down to size with the realization that pretty much anybody can become a lawyer, but not everybody should.  So many of the problems, the race to the gutter, that face lawyers today are caused by the glut combined with the absence of any real calling.  No, this is not just a business.  No, this is not the guaranteed path to wealth and prestige.  No, this is not for everybody who can get into law school or pass the bar. 

At the same time, those who denigrate the law as a losing proposition miss the point as well.  Their disgust at their situation is misplaced anger, blaming the law for their own poor choice of entering a profession in which they don’t belong.  Mark Bennett posts his responses to an angst-ridden twitterer doing document review.

I could have been a contender instead of what I am, a document review attorney.

No, you couldn’t have been a contender, because that choice was, and remains, available but you’ve chosen your path.

There are thousands of people who need lawyers for one thing or another—family law cases, landlord-tenant disputes, consumer disputes—but can’t find competent counsel because the number of competent lawyers willing to work for $50 an hour is exceedingly small.

Representing people in such disputes is not glamorous—your fellow document reviewers might even call it “shitlaw”—and you’ll never get rich doing it right, but it’s a service to your fellow humans, and you can make a living while working for people who are grateful for your time and your service. Show some competence—hell, show some interest—in such cases, and I’ll spread your name far and wide to our fellow lawyers who would appreciate having someone to refer the small stuff to. Maybe it’ll even grow into something bigger, so that instead of just making a living, you’re a success.

The problem isn’t the law, the unavailability of big money jobs, or the luck of the draw.  The problem is that this person should never have been a lawyer in the first place. 

Lat is right, a lawyer gets to put “Esq.” after his name.  It’s not about the Esq., but about wanting to be the Esq. and about the Esq. being all you need to march your butt out the door every morning and finding a person who needs an Esq. and serving them.  If that’s not what you had in mind, or doesn’t pay enough, or isn’t sufficiently prestigious, or just plain makes you feel badly about your sorry lot in life, then the only person you have to blame is yourself. 

If you want to be a lawyer, be a lawyer.  If not, take your degree and run away as fast as you can.  We certainly don’t need more miserable people running around crying about the misery of their lawyer lives, and you are never going to be a “contender”.  But if you know all of this about the law, and still want to jump in and do the hard, often painful and occasionally unprofitable work of being a lawyer, it remains a learned and noble profession. 

The few of you who feel this way are the ones who were truly meant to be a lawyer.  You will find your place in the law, and there will be no wall that will dissuade you.  You may never get rich, but you will get your reward.

6 comments on “Why Law School?

  1. Nancy Myrland

    Scott, good post. It struck me these thoughts apply to other professions and career choices as well. Many find themselves “trapped” in a career that just happened because of promotion, and end up miserable. Some lawyers, who probably didn’t end up in law school by accident, end up unhappy because of what you and others have suggested, but certainly for a host of other reasons they might not feel comfortable expressing publicly. I’m not happy when I hear lawyer jokes, or when I hear or read about anyone putting down the profession for less than logical or sound reasons. It’s not nice, and it does nothing to maintain the professionalism we who are connected to the legal profession focus on daily.

    If it’s not the right profession for you, just admit it and move on, but don’t spend time putting it down. I certainly admitted it when I started my career in sales for the first several years after college. I did okay in some ways, not okay in others, but realized I was not attracted to constantly “pounding the pavement.” I was drawn to strategic marketing. That’s where I ended up, but ended up starting my own business in 2002, where I constantly have to call upon those sales skills to build my business. This speaks remotely to the point about there being other jobs to fill when you are a lawyers, and that’s not always in the practice of law. Those skills can be used in many ways.

    All of this isn’t toward any particular end, but just to comment and further your discussion. Thanks for writing about it today.

  2. Shawn McManus

    No one can argue that it isn’t learned but noble? Ascribing nobility to a profession (or vocation as you describe it) is, usually, over the top. Admittedly, there are other professions that don’t lend themselves to nobility. What’s the word when a human attribute is applied to something inhuman?

    It seems there are many lawyers who are the equivalent of police officers who are permanently parked in front of the dunkin doughnuts.

    My thoughts on the matter are do whatever it is that you do and be the best at it. If a street sweeper, have the neatest, sweetest streets. If a defense lawyer, afford your client every protection under the law.

    Those are the people that I will call noble.

  3. SHG

    Do I describe it as a vocation?  If so, it’s a mistake.  It’s not.  My guess is that we’re saying similar things, though not quite the same.  I agree with you that whatever you do, be the best at it.  But my point here is different.  The service of a lawyer is quite noble. That many people who are admitted to practice law fall far below noble isn’t a reflection on the profession, but those who have been admitted to practice but should be. 

  4. Ernie Menard

    Sorry about all the upcoming ‘I’s.’ This comment is about my fifth iteration.

    Interesting essay. I had thought about becoming a lawyer for quite some time prior to attempting law school; actually about ten years. I never viewed the law as a path to wealth – and honestly I didn’t even know what ‘biglaw’ was.

    I was one of those that intended to graduate – if I graduated – with little or no debt. The money I entered with was earned by hard physical skilled labor. I figured I’d earn about 60K a year. Pretty humble figuring’s, aye?

    The why of why I wanted to become a lawyer I erroneously thought of as civil rights, and I now realize that the criminal defense area more closely -but not exactly – fits what I wanted to do.

    Damn I feel like driving over to the Sheriff’s office and flipping him off.

  5. Catherine Mulcahey

    For me, the draw to law school was power, not money or prestige. I was on a committee reviewing the juvenile court system and realized pretty quickly that teachers, social workers, ministers and community leaders couldn’t do much to help kids in trouble. The people with the power to make a difference were lawyers and judges. I wanted to be a person who could make a difference. It’s been over 30 years and I still want to make a difference. Lucky thing, since the money and prestige thing never happened.

    I want to be one of the best, too. I’m still learning, so I pay attention to the men and women in my field who are the best. I read their blogs, watch them in court whenever I can, hang out with them at bar association functions and CLE seminars. (Damn, I’m a groupie!) Also lucky for me, I’m in a field with more colleagues than competitors.

    I’m a litigator, not a trial lawyer, so I spend a lot of time doing research, which I usually love, and reviewing documents, which is admittedly tedious. Monday morning, I’m looking forward to a win in a motion hearing because some document reviewer on the other side screwed up. It’s going to be fun.

    Lat is right about the career options, but there are plenty of other things you can do with your time. Most of the people who are complaining are in their 20’s. They have two-thirds of their lives ahead of them. If they are so lacking in creativity that they can’t figure out how to turn their legal education into some sort of rewarding career, they deserve their misery.

  6. SHG

    Uh oh. You went and said it, that most of the whiners are in their 20s.  Now the slackoisie and happysphere will come after you because they are entitled to a legal profession that changes to meet their expectations, rather than them changing to meet the needs of a profession.

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